Europe Under Siege
The view from Brussels, where the Charlie Hebdo massacre has quickly come to represent an attack on the entire region's security and freedom. By Jeffrey Goldberg
The European Parliament complex in Brussels, where I happen to be sitting at the moment, is meant to be a monument to post-World War II continental ideals of peaceable integration, tolerance, free speech, and openness. All of these notions seem to be under attack at once, and what is striking to me, as a relatively frequent visitor to Europe over the past year, is that not many people—until a few hours ago, at least—seem to believe that their union, and their basic freedoms, are under threat.
The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo falls into the category of events that are shocking in their intensity and brutality, but not at all surprising. This attack, which killed at least 12 people, including journalists and two police officers, was utterly, completely predictable. The brittle, peevish, and often-violent campaign to defend the honor of Allah and his prophet (both of whom, one might think, are capable of defending themselves with lightning bolts and cataclysmic floods and such, should they choose to be offended by cartoons) has been pursued in earnest since the 1989 Iranian-led crusade (I use the word advisedly) to have Salman Rushdie murdered for writing a book. In 2011, of course, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed—the equivalent of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, an attack that should have told us more about long-term jihadist intentions than it unfortunately did.
And Europe has had specific, sometimes fatal, warnings about the capabilities and desires of jihadists in recent months—the car attacks in France, conducted by men shouting “Allahu Akbar,” and, most obviously, the assault on the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May, in which four people were murdered, allegedly by Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen of Algerian origin who apparently spent time in the Middle East in the employ of ISIS.
I visited the Brussels Jewish Museum on Tuesday and got a glimpse of Europe’s future: Entering the museum is a bit like breaking into a prison. Barricades and unfriendly police outside; suspicious looks and CCTV surveillance; wanding and bag checks. All necessary, and, to be sure, Europe’s Jews, and its Jewish institutions, have been living in a semi-besieged manner for some time. But these measures will spread, by necessity.
The Brussels attack presaged the Charlie Hebdo attack in certain ways: They were both executed by trained gunmen (though today's attackers seemed more skilled, in the al Qaeda manner, than what we've seen so far from ISIS-inspired jihadists) who chose as their targets institutions that could not have even semi-plausibly sparked rage in Muslims who claim to be angered solely by U.S. drone policy, or by the participation of European governments in the war in Afghanistan. In other words, both attacks seem to have been motivated more by a hatred of deeply held Western beliefs, rather than by specific actions of Western governments.
We in the West believe that blasphemy is a right and not a crime. And we in the West believe that Jews (and everyone else, for that matter) should be allowed to remain alive and have museums. (I would note, for those who believe that recent anti-Semitic attacks in Europe were caused by specific actions of the Israeli government, that a) anti-Semites cause anti-Semitism, not Israel; and, b) the Brussels attack occurred in May, well before the summer war in Gaza.)
The Charlie Hebdo massacre seems to be the most direct attack on Western ideals by jihadists yet. I’ve seen arguments advancing the idea that 9/11 represents the purest expression of Islamist rage at a specific Western idea— capitalism, in that case—but satire and the right to blaspheme are directly responsible for modernity. In the words of Simon Schama, “Irreverence is the lifeblood of freedom.”
The French president, Francois Hollande, said earlier today that, “No barbaric act will ever extinguish freedom of the press.” This statement is, as Claire Berlinski has pointed out, self-falsifying. This barbaric act, she notes, literally extinguished the press. The most recent iteration of the Islamist terror campaign in Europe has focused on Jews and cartoonists, but it will not end with Jews and cartoonists, unless it is comprehensively defeated.
A final note for now: I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere the observation that this is the wrong day to warn against overreactions directed against the broader Muslim community in France, and elsewhere. Today, it is said, should be reserved for mourning, and for anger at those who sparked this mourning. I understand the sentiment behind this observation, but I disagree with it. The goal of Western leaders should be to separate and isolate the extremist Islamist minority from the more moderate Muslim majority. One way to do this is to make sure Muslims understand that the West is not looking for a fight with the entire civilization of Islam. Europe can live up to the ideals represented by its supranational parliament by defending its citizens, and its principles, from Islamist terror, with great force when necessary, but also by protecting ordinary Muslims from revanchism, which represents another sort of threat to European ideals.